Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon, People in Panic, Cor Asia, 2015. 115 pgs.
“I found a floating head in my closet today.” This strangely disturbing yet unapologetically daring opening line is how Marguerite de Leon begins her short story collection People in Panic. De Leon does not ease her readers into her world. Much like her characters, we find ourselves being thrown into violent flights of fantasy, struggling to find rational interpretations in this other-world. Obviously, as the book title suggests, these stories are all connected by the characters’ experiences of panic. Interestingly, each stories also seems to portray an obsession with heads. Indeed, even before delving into the pages, we are presented with the beautiful cover art by Nico Villarete, featuring ten “headshots,” one for each protagonist in the stories (except one). What is it about the head?
According to clinical definitions, “panic” is associated with a sudden attack of anxiety, an overwhelming sense of fear or an animalistic flight of mind that often occurs at the expense of rational thinking; whereas, the head traditionally symbolises rationality and logic. By reiterating the image of the head, de Leon brilliantly problematises the panic condition as both, paradoxically, a loss and a recovery of rational thinking.
As the first story “The Head”—which features a floating head protagonist named Hedgar—foreshadows, many of these stories feature the head as recurring motif. In “The Man, The Pit, and the Dismantling of Metro Manila,” for example, the main character finds himself sitting at the bottom of a pit, watching dead bodies stack higher and higher, minute after minute, beside him—with “a sinister suggestion of the heady and sickly-sweetness to come.” In “Ride,” triggered by memories of her dead brother, a girl is overcome with an unprecedented panic attack that invades her with waves of “blankness” and is only eventually “dribble[ed] down to a great headache.” In “Sucker,” our protagonist crowns herself as the queen of blowjobs—”giving heads.” Yet, when she finally meets the “perfect” penis, she finds herself with a “hollow head,” unable to connect with the moment. While set in bizarre circumstances, these stories strike readers in the most fundamentally human ways. De Leon’s method of defamiliarisation transforms the everyday into a dystopia, thus allowing readers to become their own spectators. With such detached narratives, we can ruminate about what it means to be human in a clearer light: we might not identify ourselves with the post-apocalyptic Manila of “The Man,” but the feeling of being a helpless spectator amidst unfortunate surrounding events might not be as alien as it seems. Look at terrorist attacks in Syria, or hungry children in Ethiopia … we find ourselves much like the man in the pit, regretful yet incapable of changing the circumstances. Similarly, not all of us have lost our brothers or are blowjob enthusiasts, yet the sentiments of loss and emptiness are not difficult to relate to. By putting these everyday emotions into various outlandish episodes, de Leon offers us a chance to assess our own moments of panic. Specifically, I found these two lines in “The Head” particularly gripping: “The head wanted a kiss because he couldn’t want anything else. It was one of the saddest things I had ever heard.” In lieu of a body, the most intimate and erotic act that the head can desire is a simple kiss. The head thus becomes simultaneously the site of sexual intercourse and rational thinking. This amalgamation of the id and the ego suggests that the state of panic, despite being momentarily painful and intolerable, elucidates self-knowledge and the human condition in an unprecedented light. As the girl in “Ride” expresses: “Slowly, shock translates to joy. It is glorious. Today, you survived.”
The initial “shock” of panic will eventually “translate to joy”—the joy of conquering fear and of knowing oneself. While rationality might be lost in times of panic, de Leon suggests that our reasons might come back stronger through an initial self-detachment.
Such a sensibility of detachment extends further to the portrayal of characters with double or parallel lives in many of the stories. Yet rather than generating positive self-knowledge, this double-ness seem to alienate the self further. In “Hunters,” the couple Jeff and Karen lead a parallel life, in which they rarely spend time together and can only love each other in a distant way. The notion of the double recurs throughout the story: the “Glenn-like men and women” who resemble a friend of Jeff’s, the Dostoevskian moment in which Jeff discovered a man that “may very well be Jeff.” The story ends with an ambivalent scene in which the couple observe each other from a distance, both professing their tenderness yet refusing to approach each other. Readers are left bewildered in the last two words: “Jeff ran,” unsure whether he ran towards Karen or ran away from her.
In “Good Girl,” Hannah’s murderous fantasy occurs in parallel with a serene, “languid afternoon.” Interrupted by an offer of oysters, Hannah refuses and proclaims that “[she’s] good.” The pun indicates Hannah’s split persona, which convinces herself to believe that she is good/innocent despite her secret violent desires. In “Cross,” a beautiful and mysterious girl is characterised through three narrative perspectives: that of Romeo, a construction worker, that of a girl who hands out flyers and her own. It is only revealed later that all are fictions written by narrator. The three perspectives cross paths with one another at around 11:30 each morning. Despite Romeo’s and the flyer girl’s daily encounter with the protagonist, they can only speculate about but never quite decode her mysterious aura. Even the girl herself, evident in her awkward and apologetic gestures, cannot quite make out who she really is. ” Good Girl” and “Cross” though perhaps not as graphically disturbing as those mentioned earlier, somehow seem to offer a more sinister view of people in panic.
Another intriguing theme in People in Panic, and one I am not entirely sure what to make of, is the connection between food and sex. In “Sucker,” the narrator offers us a graphic image of a blowjob in action:
As I licked the head very, very slowly, I ended up recalling all those other glossy, pale oink knobs I’ve nuzzled, all those other moments when I saw them backed with pre-cum like dewy mushrooms.
This erotic licking is almost presented in terms of a childlike savouring of lollipops—and presents food in a passionate tango with the erotic. Similarly, in the (indeed) delightful tale of “Frozen Delight,” the edible “residents” of a freezer (e.g. ice-cream) marvel at the arrival of their new neighbour—Semen. The edible residents wonder whether Semen will share a similar fate with them and be consumed. But when they ask Semen what it is—whether he should be categorised as edible or inedible—he responds with an awkward silence—he simply “do[esn’t] know what to say.”
Like Semen, I too found myself bankrupt of words and immediate feelings after reading each story. I was rather (pleasantly) disturbed by all the unfamiliar but fascinating narratives, and yet I could not quite wrap my head around why I was so affected by them. Perhaps one should not rationalise these bizarre tales, but just let the strangeness seep into one’s mind. As the narrator in “Sucker” suggests: “You don’t intellectualise what makes you feel good. You just do it and sop up all the glory it provides.”
Chloe Leung is currently an MPhil student of English Literary Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include modernist writings (especially Virginia Woolf), postmodernist writings (especially Sylvia Plath and J.M. Coetzee). She is also interested in contemporary writers such as Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith, and Penelope Fitzgerald. She is currently working on a thesis focusing Virginia Woolf and early 20th-Century ballet, exploring the portrayal of physical gestures and bodies in stylising self-expression. She graduated from the Master of Arts (Literary Studies) in 2017 and completed her BA in English at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.